GREENSBORO — As Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama campaigned together Thursday for the first time in North Carolina, early voting in the presidential battleground state appeared likely to surge beyond 2012 levels with the rollout of more polling sites after a protracted battle on voting access.
Through the first seven days of early voting, around 1 million ballots were cast — roughly on par with the same period in the last presidential election. But the number of early polling places was increasing statewide from around 250 to nearly 400 on Thursday, and political experts expected a resulting rise in ballots.
“Once those sites open up and people start utilizing those, we should see a pretty significant jump,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College.
The uneven rollout of early voting sites came after a federal appeals court ruled the GOP-controlled state legislature illegally sought to boost its advantage with ballot access rules intended to discriminate against minorities, who predominantly vote Democratic.
The court struck down a measure that set a 10-day early voting period, effectively restoring another seven days. That started a scramble in many counties to accommodate another week of early voting.
Some counties chose not to extend their peak early voting capacity to the first week — sometimes over Democratic objections. But Thursday kicks off the final 10-day stretch, with more early voting sites, that was covered in the plans counties made before the ruling.
Jasmine Jackson, a 27-year-old black registered Democrat in Raleigh, said the overturned efforts to shorten early voting and require photo ID from voters increased her desire to vote.
“I’m going to vote anyway … whether they expand the days or narrowed it down,” she said after voting Thursday. “Because, especially with this election, it’s very important that you vote.”
Mecklenburg and Wake counties — the state’s two most populous with about 700,000 voters each — are doubling their early voting sites to around 20 on Thursday. The third-largest county, Guilford, had one site for nearly 360,000 voters during the first week, but is adding another 24.
As in the state’s other urban areas, registered Democrats make up the biggest bloc in each of the three counties.
The Thursday appearances of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama, as well as recent visits by GOP nominee Donald Trump, were partly aimed at mobilizing early voters.
Clinton told a crowd in Winston-Salem: “I hope, after all North Carolina has gone through with the efforts to suppress people’s votes, you will turn out in the biggest numbers ever to say: ‘No, we demand the right to vote.’”
One day earlier, in Charlotte, Trump outlined proposals to boost impoverished urban areas in what he billed a “New Deal for black America,” lamenting that “too many African-Americans have been left behind.”
At one new site, the Brown Recreation Center in Greensboro, a steady stream of voters cast ballots Thursday.
Willie Sanders, 54, brought his 19-year-old son, and both voted for Clinton.
“I don’t believe Trump should make it,” Sanders said. “And I’m doing anything possible and everything possible. I even brought my son out.”
Meanwhile, in Cabarrus County, Republican Janice Guffey is waiting to vote until Election Day and hopes for a conservative surge. The 71-year-old retired nurse supports the state’s Republican leaders and worries about election fraud — one reason cited for passing the voting law in 2013.
“I’m voting a straight Republican ticket,” she said by phone. “I’m hoping everyone comes out of the woodwork and votes for Trump.”
Statewide, Democrats had cast about 46 percent of the early ballots through Wednesday, and the increase in urban polling places should help those numbers. Republicans have cast 29 percent, while unaffiliated voters account for 24 percent.
“I would have to think that particularly for Democrats, their numbers should increase significantly just because they are greater percentages in these urban counties,” Bitzer said.
But it’s still not clear whether a head-start for Democrats will be offset by a high turnout of North Carolina conservatives on Election Day, as happened in 2012 when President Barack Obama narrowly lost the state.
State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said his party is comfortable with the early-voting numbers so far but recognizes GOP activists will have to work hard through Election Day.
Woodhouse said there has been support across parties and racial groups for requiring photo ID to cast a ballot, another of the measures in the 2013 law thrown out by the court.
Associated Press writers Emery P. Dalesio and Gary D. Robertson contributed to this report.